- The Crossover's anonymous NBA scouts preview the Central Division, focusong on LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron is a marvel
LeBron James is such a physical marvel. I think as he ages, he’s going to be more capable of playing different positions, whether it’s as a ballhandling four or a point guard, so he can operate between the free throw lines. There are so many ways you can use him even when he starts to lose a step. . . . Isaiah Thomas can really help them [when he recovers from his hip injury]. He’s infinitely tough, willing to take big shots, but he gets a little exposed in the playoffs because of game-planning and his size. . . . Kevin Love’s year was one of the more underappreciated things last season. The guy was superefficient and as good as he can possibly be defensively. It’s huge having a weapon who can shoot, doesn’t need post ups and is comfortable playing off LeBron. . . . Even if Tristan Thompson wasn’t playing with LeBron, he’d be successful. He had a terrible Finals—there’s no avoiding it—but his spirit is so strong, he’s a warrior and has completely accepted his role coming out of college: as a tough pick-and-roll guy who gets everything he can off the offensive glass. . . . I’ve heard a narrative that Jae Crowder wasn’t good defensively last year, but the guy’s what every team is looking for and on an unbelievable contract [$6.8 million this year]. Now LeBron won’t have to guard, say, Kevin Durant in the Finals. If LeBron stays, Crowder’s still valuable, and if he leaves, he’s a real trade chip. . . . Because he’s accepted that he’s a defensive player and three-point shooter, J.R. Smith is a very valuable guy too. They really have a lot of toughness and shooting on the roster.
Milwaukee Bucks: They have a star in Giannis
They have a star player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and have done a really good job surrounding him with the right kind of guys. You can play Antetokounmpo all over the floor, he can guard all these different positions, and his potential is off the charts. He’s gonna be 23 this year! He has no ceiling, only how he limits himself. If he can become a 33% or 34% three-point shooter, he’s pretty much unguardable. . . . Thon Maker was never Kevin Garnett or Kevin Durant—whoever was saying that was so stupid. But the guy’s big, he cares, he plays hard, and he can probably be a three-point shooter. That’s a win. . . . Malcolm Brogdon is going to play for a long time, but generally you see a Rookie of the Year and say he’s going to be an All-Star or something. I’m not sure that’s the case with him. He might just be in a really good spot as a really good player. He guarded, played tough and is incredibly intelligent. . . . Khris Middleton is one of the more underrated guys in the league, with his size and length and shooting. These two-way wing types are what everyone is looking for. They kind of turned Tony Snell into that, too, and rebooted his career. They can play Antetokounmpo at center and surround him with four 6'5"-plus guys, switch everything and make threes, run and gun. That just gives them so many options. . . . In a playoff game when their offense is sluggish, that’s where Greg Monroe’s value comes in. He’s really tough, he’s really physical, and he’s proved capable of being able to score.
Detroit Pistons: Luke Kennard will succeed
People look at the roster and say they’re trying to replicate what Stan Van Gundy had in Orlando, but that doesn’t take into account how good Hedo Turkoglu was. The Pistons don’t have a frontcourt player like that who can initiate offense and shoot around 40% from three. Jon Leuer’s not that caliber of player. Tobias Harris is more of a scorer and shooter than a playmaker. . . . So much is going to depend on Reggie Jackson. If he’s healthy and they’ve let bygones be bygones, the team can be good. . . . Andre Drummond has potential to be a two-way player—he’s not a zero. If he can get to 50% free throw shooting, continue to be a leading rebounder and be more of a shot blocker, that’s great, because he can move his feet on the perimeter and guard pick-and-rolls. Just don’t throw him the ball on a post up. He’s got to be a roll guy and feast on the offensive glass. . . . Avery Bradley will help them because he’s a more consistent shooter than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. . . . The fact that they traded Marcus Morris is a signal they still have high hopes for Stanley Johnson because of the role he played in the playoffs as a rookie [in 2015–16]. But the clock is ticking. All he has to do to make good money is make open threes and guard. In the past he’s tried to do too much. . . . Stan is so good at putting guys like Luke Kennard in positions to succeed. He’s not strictly a spot-up shooter; he’s a playmaker. They can play him with Langston Galloway, get Galloway running off the ball and let Kennard handle it. There’s a lot of fun ways they can use him.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls will be... interested
Lauri Markkanen is pretty interesting. He’s 7 feet, he can shoot fast, he has a better handle than he showed at Arizona, and every team in the league is looking for a big guy who can shoot. I mean, Ryan Anderson’s making $20 million a year. Markkanen has his issues, but they’re gonna be able to cover for him a little bit. . . . Zach Lavine benefited from taking a lot of shots last year for a Minnesota team that was bad. Is he a foundation piece? No. But I think they looked at it from the standpoint that he’s 23, he can help us win now and he’s talented enough. At minimum he can be a good defensive player. . . . Does Nikola Mirotic fit what they want to be and do? He’s made 363 threes in three years, and I always thought he had a little more to his game than he’s shown. He was slotted as a three-point shooter early in his career, so that’s what people think he is. . . . Robin Lopez could be a tradable guy at the deadline for a team that wants to play with size in the playoffs or wants to be heavy on the offensive boards. He’s out of place right now given the direction they decided to go. . . . Denzel Valentine is so challenged athletically. Can he be a spot-up three-point shooter? I think so, but it’s hard to see him as a starter on a deep playoff team. . . . They have some pretty good international scouting, and Cristiano Felicio has been a good get for them. He may be a tradable piece too. . . . Bobby Portis is probably a really good three-point-shooting center. That’s what he’s got to start to get his head around.
Indiana Pacers: Does anyone pay attention to Lance?
The Pacers looked at the Paul George trade like, Well, we’ll send the guy to the other conference so we don’t have to play against him this year. But Victor Oladipo will help them. He’s shown us about what we can expect from him. He’s a solid player, a little undersized as a two guard. He gets by on his grit and toughness. . . . They tried to rush Domantas Sabonis in OKC and made him shoot threes—the first two months of the season he didn’t shoot a free throw. It was ridiculous considering his greatest asset at Gonzaga was being around the basket, playing at the elbows. So I think there’s some untapped ability there. . . . This is the year we’re going to find out how good Myles Turner is. Was he a beneficiary of playing with George and other good players, or was he really a heavy participant and driver in their success? . . . With Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph they have some solid pieces, but they’re going to have to decide which guys to go forward with so they don’t block the progress of ones they believe in. They could trade Young or Joseph or Darren Collison—teams always need backup guards at the deadline. . . . Glenn Robinson III got better last year. He accepted his role and really fought defensively, worked hard and then he made shots. They have to think, O.K., this could be a guy for us going forward. . . . Does anyone pay Lance Stephenson attention anymore? The last time he was good was the year he was trying to get paid, and since then he’s been almost more trouble than he’s worth.